The most non-Spursy season in more than two decades will be over in about two weeks and take the NBA’s most stable franchise into an offseason of more uncertainty than any other time under Gregg Popovich.
When the San Antonio Spurs reached the conference finals last season, the moment was a sterling example of how the league’s model franchise was able to redefine itself as a possible forever contender in its first season without Tim Duncan. But as the Spurs face the Golden State Warriors in the rematch, this time in the first round as a seventh seed, they are in an awkward position because Kawhi Leonard, the player who was supposed to — and yet still might — keep the organization relevant, is not expected to play. Instead, the Spurs are entering the playoffs without their best player being a homegrown and developed talent for the first time since that forgettable period in the late 1980s between George Gervin’s retirement and David Robinson’s arrival.
Though their enviable streak of consecutive seasons with 50 wins came to an end at 18, Popovich performed one of his most remarkable coaching jobs as the Spurs extended the best active professional sports string of postseason appearances to legal drinking age, with Leonard playing just nine games in a closely contested Western Conference in which the ninth seed was only two games from having home-court advantage in the first round. Popovich has established a model program over the years. But this was also the first season since this dominant run began that the rest of the league could look at the Spurs and say, “Dynasties, they’re just like us.”
Leonard’s bizarre quadriceps injury and reported rift between him, Spurs management and the medical staff have created an unusual, drama-filled campaign for an organization that has historically kept a lid on those situations. The rare soap opera added another layer to Duncan’s greatness because not only did the Spurs reach six NBA Finals and win five rings during his tenure but any problems were resolved internally. Turmoil and sideshows for public consumption pretty much left with Dennis Rodman.
For all the justified credit that the Spurs’ “system” gets for the organization’s sustained excellence, that’s all gobbledygook without elite talent. The Spurs have always sought to maintain an edge by being ahead of the NBA’s trends. But when the rest of the league caught up with them in mining talent overseas, embracing the “pace and space” beautiful game, resting stars to prolong their careers and extend their primes, and relying on player development staffs to improve from within, the Spurs became more like everyone else. Never was that clearer than in the summer of 2015, when LaMarcus Aldridge became the first in-his-prime, All-Star free agent to pick San Antonio.
To win in the NBA, stockpiling talent is a must. Super-teams are rarely built organically anymore; even Golden State, which became a power with three homegrowns, added an outside MVP to become a juggernaut. The Spurs didn’t have the advantage of amassing top talent through the draft because the downside of their Duncan-fueled success was picking in the late 20s every year. And, after trading George Hill for Leonard on draft night in 2011, the team has mostly whiffed on back-of-the-draft prospects. They also were too loyal to ever trade pillars of their franchise, such as Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
If Leonard makes it clear that he wants to leave this summer, the Spurs could acquire the haul of picks and prospects they’d need to rebuild and avoid staying among the pack. But that would have to be a last-ditch measure. The Spurs still have the ability to give Leonard a $219 million extension that he can’t get anywhere else. Not having enough confidence in his leg, when so much is at stake contractually, could explain why Leonard hasn’t returned this season. The risk is too extreme. Leonard isn’t one to take anything for granted. When it was widely reported that the Spurs would hold off on giving him that first maximum salary extension coming off his 2014 Finals MVP, Leonard replied with, “We’ll see.”
San Antonio would appear to be the perfect situation for Leonard, given its low profile, but the persona that has been crafted for him — as an emotionless robot created to destroy —does not match how his mind truly works. Leonard was never the second coming of Duncan. He’s from a different place with different motivations. Duncan was an introvert who mostly kept his comments to the media to a minimum. But he also took ownership, was dedicated to creating an unselfish culture and reached back to make sure every teammate was invested in what they were trying to accomplish. Leonard does his work in silence and leads by his tenacious play and example.
Where Leonard stands in regard to his future plans has been the source of much stress and consternation. The controversies have been coming from places other than him because Leonard hasn’t said much. In his only comments during this stalemate, Leonard responded to a question about wanting to finish his career with the Spurs by saying, “Yeah. For sure.” But speculation that Leonard wants out has already fueled a potential offseason feeding frenzy for teams hoping to take advantage of the chance to poach a top-five player.
The Spurs need Leonard for a chance to be among the NBA’s elite. Ginobili has been amazing at 40, former role players have flourished in more prominent roles, and younger players such as Dejounte Murray have had their moments. But if Aldridge doesn’t have an MVP-caliber season, the Spurs are embracing the lottery for the first time since Duncan landed in their laps. And that All-NBA performance doesn’t happen without a frank, clear-the-air conversation between Aldridge and Popovich that ended with the coach vowing to utilize him better and the player later accepting a three-year extension.
San Antonio doesn’t have the money to make another free-agent splash and it might have to wait for Leonard’s contract to expire before Murray is groomed into the star the franchise needs him to be. Discounting Popovich’s ability to sway Leonard back into the fold this offseason isn’t wise because he was able to get Duncan to stay when he flirted with Orlando in 2000, and he was able to get Aldridge to buy in when it appeared he had one foot out of the door after last year’s conference finals flameout.
Not being able to pair this assertive, decisive version of Aldridge with a healthy Leonard is one of the more disappointing aspects of this saga, right up there with Parker and Ginobili being unable to play for something meaningful in their respective twilights. The final links to the team’s past four championships have a right to be a tad perturbed because the opportunities to contribute for a championship contender are dwindling and they’ve given so much of themselves — physically, emotionally and financially — to a franchise that has historically taken care of its players. But the Spurs will compete and Popovich won’t accept any less than an honest effort, regardless of who is playing.
Reuniting with the Warriors puts San Antonio in its most low-expectation ride in some time but also serves as a reminder. Leonard aggravated an already-sprained ankle not once but twice in Game 1 of that series and the subsequent collapse of the team could haunt the franchise until it is able to make its way back to that position. Only Leonard knows if his distrust began in that series, because the Spurs didn’t immediately rest him when he came up gimpy, allowing Zaza Pachulia to slide underneath him for the blow that ended his season. Popovich’s anger over the situation was delivered in a blistering takedown of Pachulia the next day. But in hindsight, that rant almost feels like an apology to Leonard.
Just like last year, the Warriors will put San Antonio’s season to bed but the what-could’ve-been — and the ramifications of ending another season without Leonard — will be much different and more nuanced this time around. The Spurs are no longer just worried about hanging with the Warriors. If the situation with Leonard isn’t resolved with the desired outcome, they’ve already learned that they’ll have trouble hanging with everyone else, too.
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